Leadership Profile – Larkin Callaghan

Growing up in San Francisco, Dr. Larkin Callaghan couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

“I love my city and the whole Bay Area region,” she says. “It’s dynamic, diverse, political – and for someone interested in HIV, offers history lessons and a plethora of new opportunities. I sort of had to force myself to leave for a while,” she admits.

After a brief layover back home working at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation after finishing her undergraduate studies in Los Angeles, leave she did. Moving to New York for a master’s in health behavior, she explored a few areas in the field – designing harm reduction and resource building programs for formerly incarcerated/re-entry individuals and persons who inject drugs at risk for HIV and Hepatitis C co-infection, and evaluating screening and linkage to care systems for immigrant communities in the city. Following some later stints working internationally in global health, Callaghan thought she knew exactly what she wanted to do.

“When I started my doctoral program I was sure I wanted to be a field epidemiologist and health educator in resource-limited settings – I liked the urgency and excitement of it,” she says. As she progressed in her studies, however, she began freelance writing for global health organizations and brokering partnerships between community organizations and research institutions as a way to stay engaged and balance solitary study hours.

Her writing led to working as a United Nations correspondent covering public health issues in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. While covering a story exploring connections between the myths of how HIV is transmitted among rural communities in the U. S. and those in East Africa, Callaghan began to see that what really motivated her was the accurate and relatable translation and dissemination of research for lay audiences as a way of effectively communicating scientific and policy advancements.

“I was seeing how despite huge advances scientifically in the field, so many questions about HIV remained unanswered for people – contributing to stigma, misunderstanding of the ways the virus can be transmitted, and an incomplete picture of how public health, policy, research, and globalization together play a role in driving the epidemic,” she explains.

She continued to work throughout sub-Saharan Africa and Haiti for a number of years, implementing surveillance studies, research and training programs, and evaluating public health interventions, but incorporated broader communication strategies into her projects. Acknowledging that her goals had really changed, she focused more energy on engaging the media relationships she had cultivated during her time as a correspondent, combining her interests in research and communications.

Currently the Director of Strategic Communications and Partnerships for the AIDS Research Institute at UCSF, Callaghan oversees media, messaging, and translational research communications for the HIV enterprise at UCSF; relationships with community, city, and state partners; and partnerships with external governing and research bodies. With basic, clinical, and translational science advancements happening regularly at UCSF, there is no shortage of exciting findings to promote and share, she says.

“I get to stay abreast of current research and policy and satisfy my drive for cross-disciplinary and multi-institutional partnerships, which are at the crux of ending the epidemic, as well as help raise visibility of the field. It’s a perfect combination.”

It also serves her well in her role as elected co-chair of the AIDS2020 Local Planning Group (LPG) and its Steering Committee, and promoting its work. The LPG facilitates activities in the Bay Area leading up to and during the 2020 International AIDS Conference featuring San Francisco and Oakland organizations, curates cultural and arts activities and strives to highlight the scientific, community, and political leaders of the region.

“The Bay Area offers so much to visitors to the region – we aren’t just an epicenter of scientific discovery and community engagement. We have phenomenal arts and cultural groups, socially conscious politicians, and a physical landscape that’s hard to beat – we’re thrilled that IAS selected our two cities as hosts,” says the SF native.

Joining the International AIDS Society as a professional member and conference delegate in 2005, Callaghan credits the conferences of the last 15 years as the springboard for many of her professional and personal relationships.

“The confluence of people I meet from community, research, industry, and policy at the conferences is unparalleled,” she says. “I have been able to launch health communication campaigns, ignite research collaborations, and secure media exposure in the span of four days. It’s both inspiring and invigorating to see the scope of expertise the field of HIV encompasses and the diversity of perspectives I’ve been exposed to via these meetings.”

Looking towards next summer, Callaghan returns to her roots:

“Our region has been at the forefront of HIV science, prevention, and policy for 30 years. I can’t wait for our cities to show the world how our research institutions, community-based organizations, and public health agencies work together as we continue to develop innovative strategies for ending the epidemic.

Welcome to the Bay – we’re so excited to have you.”

Dr. Callaghan studied Women’s and Gender Studies and International Relations at the University of Southern California. She subsequently received her masters and doctoral degrees in 2007 and 2012 from Columbia University, with a focus on the clustering of high-risk health behaviors among adolescent girls, and completed a fellowship in health communication and epidemiology, also at Columbia.

She serves on the Boards of Komera, a Rwandan education and development organization for girls and young women, and of the Ginetta Sagan Fund for Women’s Rights Defenders at Amnesty International. She was previously a communications advisor for global non-profit health organizations funded by Carnegie Corporation and is a contract writer for NIH grants.